Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Religious Experience

or, Flashmob in Paris the 18th of February.

At my high school reunion a couple months back, an old "friend," after learning that my boyfriend is Muslim, asked me in the most judgmental way, "So what religion are YOU?" It took me a few seconds to respond, for a few reasons... And when I came up with "Literature is my religion," apparently my time to respond had run out and I was thought a heathen. Now I know it's true... at least the religion part! And I don't think S/He will hold it against me ;) This is why.

You see, I went to this Flashmob thing. I had nothing better to do, not until three anyway. So I took my favorite book off the shelf--Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects and chose which passage I wanted to read--pretty much the whole book is worthy and I could never have anticipated how very perfect her voice would be for the occasion. I had no idea what I was in store for.

When I arrived, the Place St Michel was more crowded than usual... more like a Saturday night than a Wednesday at noon. Riot police had lined up their paddy wagons, clearly preparing for the worst. Who knows what can happen when you get a bunch of readers together, right?! I had a few minutes to wait for the whistle and was hoping to run into someone I knew, but alas, I stood alone and smoked a festive clove cigarette while the people came. I wished I had invited that group of students that I passed in front of Sainte Chappelle. I wished I had brought Filou. I wished I had enough courage to walk up to the Addonizio'esque French mom and her daughter with the oh-so-French embroidered beret and to tell them, "Comme vous ĂȘtes belles !" Each with her book in hand.

And then the whistle blew. At first it got quiet and I felt self-conscious. This is what I read:

“To begin with the reader. The ordinary reader is not primarily concerned with questions of structure and style. He or she decides on a book, enjoys it or doesn’t, finishes it or doesn’t, and is, perhaps affected by it.”

Second by second the din of dissonant voices rose and within just a few lines I was crying, yes crying... happy to have worn my dark sunglasses despite the ever-present rain clouds.

“When the fiction or the poem has a powerful effect likely to be lasting, the reader feels personally attached to both the work and the writer. Everyone has their favourite books to be read and re-read. Such things become talismans and love-tokens, even personality indicators, the truly bookish will mate on the strength of a spine… The world of the book is a total world and in a total world we fall in love.”

By this time, I was no longer sure if it was the mob or the book that was making me so emotional. I assure you, I could barely hear my own voice and my mouth was trembling and falling all over the words…

“Falling for a book is not the nymph Echo falling for the sound of her own voice nor is it the boy Narcissus falling for his own reflection. Those Greek myths warn us of the dangers of recognizing no reality but our own. Art is a way into other realities, other personalities. When I let myself be affected by a book, I let into myself new customs and new desires. The book does not reproduce me, it re-defines me, pushes at my boundaries, shatters the palings that guard my heart. Strong texts work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists. They could not do this if they merely reflected what already exists. Of course, strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people who have never read them, that they become part of what exists, at least a distort of them does. It is very strange to read something supposedly familiar, The Gospels, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and to find that it is quite unlike our mental version of it. Without exception, the original will be as unsettling, as edgy as it ever was, we have learned a little and sentimentalised the rest….”

I read on through tears… and simultaneous laughter! Giddy does not begin to describe it. I felt much like I did almost twenty years ago coming out from under the anesthesia used by my oral surgeon when he pulled all four of my wisdom teeth! I looked around me and others were giddy, too. Probably not crying, but I didn’t want to stop reading long enough to look so closely. Instead, I pushed through the rush.

“… I do not mean to say that any of this is conscious; mostly it is not, and therein lies a difficulty. Art is conscious and its effect on the audience is to stimulate consciousness. This is sexy…” [and at this moment, I KNOW the older gentleman next to me was listening! I began to calm down.] “… this is exciting, it is also tiring, and even those who welcome art-excitement have an ordinary human longing for sleep. Nothing wrong with that but we cannot use the book as a pillow. The comfort and the rest to be got out of art is not of the passive forgetting kind, it is inner quiet of a high order, and it follows the intensity, the excitement we feel when exposed to something new. Or does it? Only if we are prepared to stay the course, not give up and doze off, not leap from rock to rock after new thrills. Books need to be deeply read which is one reason why it is wise never to trust a paid hack.”

In the unyielding din, I found myself wondering what others were reading, if they had chosen their books as appropriately as I. In the moment, I had given up understanding exactly what I was reading. Everything related to that moment. Every word was about that moment. We were making art… many without even knowing it.

“Our unconscious attitude to art is complex. We want it and we don’t want it, often simultaneously, and at the same time as a book is working intravenously we are working to immunise ourselves against it. Our best antidote to art as a powerful force independently affecting us is to say that it is only the image of ourselves that is affecting us. The doctrine of Realism saves us from a bad attack of Otherness and it is a doctrine that has been bolstered by the late-twentieth-century vogue for literary biography; tying the writer’s life with the writer’s work so that the work becomes a diary; small, private, explainable and explained away, much as Freud tried to explain art away.”

Just as I reached the white space, the second whistle blew and the crowd gave up the joyful noise of a Flashmob well executed, myself included, hooting, hollering and clapping—the muffled clapping of hundreds of hands on the books they were holding, and then the crowd began to disperse.

I’ll post a link to the video once I find it. Or if you find it first, please send it along. I’m just left of the fountain in a red coat and camel colored hat… with dark glasses, of course. Not hard to find in a crowd of black-clad Parisians! In the meantime, here is a quickie video of a Flash-freeze mob at Trocadero.

Short story long, if you have a chance to be a part of a flashmob, do it. Just do it!


Brooke said...

HOW COOL! I want to be a part of a Flash mob! What an incredible experience you had - religious, indeed. I showed Jimmy the video of the "Flash Freeze" (of which I could only get through about half before it started "buffering" and stopped playing) and he said "what's the point?" I gave him a dirty look and he laughed and said "just kidding". I said, angrilly (sp?) "well something as cool as that would never happen here, so I guess I'll have to go to Paris to participate". Anyway, loved your blog (all of them! I just spent 20 minutes getting caught up!) and hope you'll send me the video of your flash mob when you find it.


Suzanne said...

Here's a video. It says it's the "official video," but I saw cameras with much better angles than these. At least it shows pretty much what I told. I love the space between 20 and 30 seconds... between the whistle and the rising din of the crowd finally finding their pages... and some of the footage near the end is especially good. I guess I was one of only a few reading in English! But you'll see others giggling. It was a trip!

To combat buffering, pause the video until the loading bar is mostly red, then click play. And to those who say "what's the point?" (Jimmy!!) read my blog! AND don't knock it 'til you try it!